14.09.21, Zilmer and Jesch, eds., Epigraphic Literacy

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Jonathan Herold

The Medieval Review 14.09.21

Zilmer, Kristel and Judith Jesch. Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity: Modes of Written Discourse in the Newly Christian European North. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 4. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. vi, 273, with 47 illustrations. ISBN: 978-2-503-54294-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Herold
University of Trinity College in the University of Toronto and Glendon College, York University
jr.herold@utoronto.ca; jherold@glendon.yorku.ca

The papers in this volume were originally presented at "Practical Literacy and Christian Identity in Northern Europe (to c. 1200)," a conference conducted at the University of Bergen in April 2009 which featured a number of studies of pragmatic and epigraphic texts originating from Scandinavia and the northwestern region of modern-day Russia (1-2). Although the advancement of literate modes of communication throughout Europe has long been associated with the adoption of Christianity, the studies in this volume explore the nature of this assumed interrelationship in two adjacent geographical and cultural regions that became "Christianized" at about the same time (i.e., over the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries). There is no question that Christian missionaries to the European North encountered people who had already developed practices for symbolically representing their respective languages when circumstances dictated it necessary or appropriate so to do. Despite evidence for a pre-conversion tradition of "runacy" (to employ the term coined by Terje Spurkland) in Scandinavia and written representations of Slavic language in pre-conversion Rus', nearly half of surviving runic inscriptions date from the eleventh century or later, and most of the 1000 or so berestjanaja gramoa ("birchbark documents") unearthed at medieval settlement sites in Eastern Europe since 1951 appear to date no earlier than the first quarter of the eleventh century. The studies included in Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity focus upon this relatively large number of conversion-era epigraphic texts (such as monumental runic inscriptions and graffiti found in early churches) and artifacts of ephemeral writing (inscribed objects, rune-sticks and birchbark "documents") found in Scandinavia and Northwestern Russia.

The volume is organized in two parts: Part I is comprised of four papers addressing aspects of commemorative and monumental epigraphy in conversion-era Scandinavia, focusing in particular on examples of late Viking-age rune stone carving discovered in the region surrounding the early Swedish Christian centre of Sigtuna. Magnus Källström analyzes the social milieus, textual content, rune-forms and inscriptional layout associated with inscriptions made by three rune carvers known to have worked in Uppland during the Swedish conversion era, and discusses the possible influences of "clerical" and/or "lay" Latin literate culture on their work (27-62). Laila Kitzlerr Åhfeldt's contribution discusses how analysis of the carving techniques employed by conversion-era rune carvers of Uppland may reveal broader aspects of Scandinavian literate culture, such as the training of specialist rune carvers (as opposed to ornamental carvers), the degree to which they engaged in practical exchanges with fellow specialists, and the geographical scope of the activities of individual carvers. Åhfeldt also considers the implications of their familiarity with theological and/or liturgical aspects of Christianity, and the extent to which the activities of Sigtuna-trained runographers participated in missionary activities in eleventh-century Sweden (63-97). Kristel Zilmer contributes a study of the composition of prayers inscribed in monumental contexts in Scandinavia from the end of the tenth to the beginning of the twelfth century. Zilmer discusses these texts as direct expressions of Christianization, analyzing variations in their formulaic characteristics in terms of grammatical structure, content, physical and regional geographical context (99-135). Henrik Williams' chapter (137-52) discusses an alternative interpretation of the formulaic phrase dauð i hvitavaðum ("dead in white clothes") that occurs in runic memorial inscriptions from the early Christian era in Scandinavia. Long assumed to have meant that the individual commemorated by the inscription had died soon after undergoing baptism (thereby implying that Scandinavians of the conversion era may have postponed formal "Christianization" until they were on their death bed), Williams argues persuasively that inscribed references to "white clothes" may have indicated that the memorialized individual had died seeking confirmation--a rite that required the participation of a bishop, and therefore might have involved risking the hazards of long-distance travel in order to achieve--rather than baptism, which in the eleventh and twelfth centuries any Christian might legally have provided for an un-baptized convert.

The five contributions to Part II of this collection discuss both informal epigraphic texts (such as early graffiti) as well as two important--and expanding--corpora of ephemeral texts that have significantly transformed current understanding of the characteristics of medieval literacy: rune sticks and "birchbark documents." Michael Schulte discusses the corpus of Bryggen rune sticks as evidence of increasing pragmatic literacy in Scandinavia from the ninth through fourteenth century. Schulte's observations go beyond noting the apparent proliferation of writing during this period to the consideration of dynamic characteristics of "ephemeral literacy" which defy the conceptual dichotomy of Latinate and vernacular, "lay" and "clerical," or "high" and "low" culture (155-82). Terje Spurkland's chapter, "How Christian Were the Norwegians in the High Middle Ages?", examines examples from the Bryggen runic inscriptions in order to explore both the impact of Christianity and the persistence of pre-Christian runic literacy upon Norwegian culture of the High Middle Ages. As with Schulte's article, Spurkland's analysis of objects inscribed with Latin prayers written in runes indicates that pragmatic literate culture bridged categories of "lay" and "clerical" culture, and even broader practical aspects of "religion" and "ritual" (183-200). Jos Schaeken's contribution provides a useful update to Dean Worth's 1990 study of the corpus of birchbark documents. [1] Schaeken revises the chronology of the corpus in light of recent discoveries, particularly the extent of the "epistolary crisis" of the early thirteenth century observed by Worth and the circumstances that may have contributed to the dramatic reduction in birchbark documents found dating from the period between the early thirteenth and late fourteenth century (201-24). In a well-argued response to the idea of a pre-conversion "gestation period" of vernacular writing in Northeastern Europe proposed by Simon Franklin in his influential Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c. 950-1300, Alexej Gippius' "Birchbark Literacy and the Rise of Written Communication in Early Rus'" (225-50) presents an unequivocal link between Christian conversion and the proliferation literate modes of communication among the eleventh-century Rus'. While admitting the possibility of pre-conversion Slavic writing on birchbark, Gippius observes that the evidence that appears to support this gradual development is problematic at best. Instead, Gippius associates the development of literate routines among the Rus'--both in terms of the symbols used to encode their Slavic vernacular and the choice of writing support--with the introduction of Christianity, and asserts that "for the first generation who made notes and wrote letters on birchbark, the use of writing in everyday life, besides being a practical convenience, was at the time a marker of Christian identity" (248). The final contribution to the volume is Tatjana Rozhdestvenskaja's analysis of early literate culture based upon characteristics of graffiti inscribed within eight medieval churches of Novgorod and its environs (251-72). Rozhdestvenskaja describes a gloriously complex interaction of different languages and alphabets of the region during this era, and the various uses of writing mediated by both Christian and pagan cultures as recorded in the supplications, identifications/autographs, obituary memorials, historical memoranda, excerpts of liturgical or Biblical texts, and expressions of Slavic pagan/folk traditions inscribed on the walls of early churches.

In addition to the nine studies that comprise the body of this collection, Kristel Zilmer's introductory essay, "Epigraphic Literacy and the Communication of Christian Culture" (1-24), effectively delineates the themes addressed by the contributors while also providing general background on the nature of the sources to which the studies refer. As is the case with other volumes in the Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy series, the editorial quality of this volume is generally good, although the lack of a subject index or cross-reference table to the various epigraphic texts and artifacts cited among the individual papers somewhat diminishes the ease with which researchers may use this volume. Since many of the studies address different aspects of the same individual artifact, inscription, memorandum or message text, the lack of apparatus to facilitate easy comparison is unfortunate. Despite this omission, the papers included in Epigraphic Literacy and Christian Identity provide valuable additions to the study of literate modes of communication and memorialization as they developed along the northern and eastern borders of medieval European civilization, presenting a range of intriguing observations regarding pragmatic literacy in both Norse and Slavic cultural traditions as well as analyzing the impact of Christian culture upon and within those traditions.



1. D. S. Worth, "The Birchbark Documents in Time and Space," Wiener Slawistischer Almanach 25-26 (1990), 439-450.

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Author Biography

Jonathan Herold

University of Trinity College in the University of Toronto and Glendon College, York University